Dionne Warwick: ‘I was the major earning power. It was too much to bear for my husband’
The great pop vocalist on blazing a trail, Elvis Presley, Whitney Houston and Donald Trump
Dionne Warwick: the Covid-19 shutdown has ‘taken the running-through-airports out my life for a minute’
Dionne Warwick is 79 and on fire. In 2019 she released two albums, kicked off a Las Vegas residency and won a lifetime-achievement Grammy award. This year she has already done a turn on the US version of The Masked Singer – the reality TV show where artists perform songs incognito – and a tour of Ireland and the UK is planned for autumn.
As the sweet, mellow voice behind the hits Walk on By and Do You Know the Way to San Jose, she was one of the first artists in the series to be correctly identified by the show’s judging panel. “The fortunate, or unfortunate, thing about my voice is it’s so distinctive,” she says. Obscuring it would have been impossible, she adds. “I don’t know how to do that.”
It’s 11am in Las Vegas when Warwick calls me. She was several months into a run performing four intimate shows a week on Cleopatra’s Barge at Caesars Palace. The shows are currently suspended. After more than five decades of touring, performing like this must feel like a doddle. “Easy for you to say,” she giggles. “It’s taken the running-through-airports out my life for a minute, but aside from that it is basically the same.”
We grew up like normal people grow up. Went to school like everybody else did. Did my homework, and did the dishes as I had to. I had a normal life
Warwick has dazzled audiences since the 1960s, when she was the bright young thing introduced to the Paris Olympia as “the black pearl” by Marlene Dietrich. But she had been singing for her supper long before that. Born in 1940 in East Orange, New Jersey, she had a “wonderful” upbringing. “Every family knew every family, of course,” she says. “My aunt lived about a block and a half away from us.” Her aunt is Cissy Houston, one of the many singers in the family, and mother of Warwick’s late cousin Whitney Houston.
Warwick was singing in the New Hope Baptist Choir in Newark by the age of six. “I come from a gospel-singing family,” she says. Her mother and maternal aunts and uncles toured the country as the Drinkard Singers; she and her sister Dee Dee formed the group The Gospelaires in their teens. Despite this, she insists she didn’t have a show-business upbringing. “We grew up like normal people grow up. Went to school like everybody else did. Did my homework, and did the dishes as I had to. I had a normal life.”
She went to college, studying music at Hartt College of Music in Connecticut, and was planning to go into teaching. But her music career with The Gospelaires was beginning to take off. “I was doing demonstration records, and backing singing in studios in New York, while I was in college,” she says. “For Dinah Washington, the entire Scepter roster, Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, The Shirelles... We did some things with Ben E King.”
Which ones stand out in her memory? “They all did. Are you kidding me? They were stars. It was really wonderful to be, first of all, in demand, and that’s what our group was. And subsequently, over the years, I made friends with all these people.” She didn’t get to work with Elvis Presley, although, she says: “I had sweet aspirations to. But I had the pleasure of meeting him and getting to know him. That’s as far as that went.”
Warwick isn’t inclined to regale me with anecdotes about working in this golden era, preferring to be matter-of-fact about her job. “We did what we knew how to do,” she says. “It was a very lucrative situation that helped keep me in college with my tuition and books and things of that nature.”
The music industry had other plans for her. Hal David and Burt Bacharach, the songwriting duo and kings of easy listening, had heard her work as a session musician and asked her to record a demo of a song that they had written for The Shirelles. They sent it over to Scepter Records, the independent label that launched the careers of The Kingsmen, The Isley Brothers and Tammi Terrell – and when its president, Florence Greenberg, heard it, says Warwick, paraphrasing Greenberg’s famous response: “She did not want the song. She wanted the voice, and that was me.”
In 1962 she released the Bacharach-David song Don’t Make Me Over, which reached No 21 on the Billboard charts and established her around the world as one of pop music’s great voices. Her biggest hit came in 1967, with I Say a Little Prayer, followed by Do You Know the Way to San Jose in 1968. Despite starting so young, she never had Motown-style deportment coaching for public life, or a chaperone, nor did she need one. “From what I was taught at home, I already knew what I was doing and how to act and how to dress and how to speak. I came from a safe, solid home.”
Her 1960s heyday was relatively short-lived. By 1972 she had split with her prolific writing and producing team; Bacharach and David had decided, mid-recording contract, not to work together any more. “I had no choice but to sue both Bacharach and David,” she says, but their friendship survived. “That doesn’t cut off and disappear.” This was the start of a patchy decade on the charts, but the 1980s brought her another golden era. Her collaboration with the Bee Gees on her album Heartbreaker was a highlight, and in 1985 she teamed up with Elton John, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder for a cover version of That’s What Friends Are For.
During these years Warwick spent more and more time in Brazil, and made it her base for “close to 23 years”. She said in 2002 that she loved it there partly because it shared her values: “Family and the importance of not being denigrated because you happen to love God. That happens to be high on my priorities, and it seems it is everywhere else except the United States.” Now, she says, “I don’t just feel that way about the US, but I feel that way about the entire world. It’s in the most chaotic state ever. It’s just a period of time in which everything’s changing.
“Wars, segregation, everything that the entire world is going through, emotionally, mentally and physically, it’s in a sad state right now,” she says. “There’s segregation going on in the States, and segregation going on in the UK. There’s segregation going on everywhere. It’s still the same.”
Warwick experienced formal segregation first-hand while touring the southern US, where audiences were split according to race. “It was in the 60s and it was horrible, something I’d never experienced. It was like a bad movie,” she says. “That was the modus operandi for that part of our country, unfortunately.” And more than 50 years later, she believes, there has been little progress. “Nothing’s really changed yet,” she says. “I hope eventually we’ll get to the point where we all understand that we all bleed red blood, end of.”
Warwick didn’t get directly involved in the civil-rights movement. “I’m not a marcher, I’m a doer,” she says. In 1969, the year after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Warwick won her first Grammy: best female pop vocal performance, for Do You Know the Way to San Jose. “I believe I was the first [African American woman] to win a Grammy in the pop arena, which was basically almost designated for white people,” she says. “So it was kind of unheard of. I was probably the first person in a lot of areas.”
She was also the main breadwinner for her husband, William David Elliott, an actor and drummer, and two sons, David and Damon, who both now work in music (Damon produced one of his mother’s latest albums, She’s Back, and has worked with Beyoncé, Macy Gray, Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani.) That put a strain on the marriage. Breadwinning became harder in the 1990s. This was when Warwick started presenting infomercials sponsored by the Psychic Friends Network. These took the form of a pastel-hued daytime talkshow, complete with studio audience and a lot of pot plants. Fronted by the psychic Linda Georgian, the network offered a telephone psychic reading service, and the infomercials proved a roaring success, raking in $125 million a year at their peak.
The Donald Trump that I knew was very nice. He really was. He was a gentleman. I didn’t know what he did with anybody else, but I know how he treated me. I did concerts in his hotel, and he was always very nice to me
I politely ask whether this sojourn was a passion or just a job. Warwick is clearly wearied by the fact that she’s never going to live this down, nor the story about her temporarily adding an “e” to the end of her surname in the early 1970s after her astrologer told her it would boost her success, so she plumps for the latter – just a job – in a flash. “That’s exactly what it was. It was during a period of time when I was not recording. You know, it kept the lights on in my house and food on my table. It was an earning power. I earned money that I normally would have earned if I was on the road. It’s very simple.”
But was she a believer? “No more than anybody else is,” she says. “You ask anybody in the world, ‘What’s your sign?’ and they’ll say it.” I feel bad for having brought it up, so I comment on how successful the show was. “It sure was,” she says. “Then everybody put a boo-boo on that. They said, ‘What are you doing, ratting on about that?’ But now that’s all you see on TV or hear people talk about. I’m known to be the first to do things.”
In 2011 Warwick appeared on The Celebrity Apprentice in the US with Donald Trump. She describes the experience as very interesting. It didn’t go well for her, and when her cocontestants turned nasty she fired herself. “It got to the point where I felt this was not what I was supposed to be doing with my 50-year career.” However, she says, “the Donald Trump that I knew was very nice. He really was. He was a gentleman. He never was out of the way with me. I didn’t know what he did with anybody else, but I know how he treated me. I did concerts in his hotel, and he was always very nice to me.”
She has fewer words to describe how she feels about him now. “I don’t know that man. That’s not the man that I knew. Period.” This is as political as she’s prepared to get. “Politics, religion and sex are three things that should totally be avoided in conversation,” she says firmly.
She’s also, understandably, loath to talk about her cousin Whitney, who died in 2012 after years of substance abuse. As we speak, the bizarre hologram show An Evening with Whitney Houston has been touring Ireland and the UK to bewildered reviews. “First I even heard about it, so, you know, I have no opinion of it,” she says, but she does. “I think it’s a waste of time. And Whitney’s legacy, her music, speaks for itself.” Some fans have commented that they feel Houston is being exploited beyond the grave. Houston’s former manager and sister-in-law Pat Houston, meanwhile, has reportedly said, “This is something that she wanted to do.”
“Well, you know,” says Warwick, I think referring to the real motives behind the show, “it’s what makes the world go round.”
Warwick says she will carry on performing, “as long as I’m giving people the pleasure that they seem to have when they come to my concerts, and I’m doing it to the best of my ability. But when I feel that I have altered in any way, vocally, appearancewise, or any of the other things that go along with it, that’s when I should gracefully bow out.” That’s when she will return to Brazil. “It’s my paradise,” she says. “I say when I’m through with show business, that’s where I want to live.” She doesn’t sound in the least sad about the prospect. “Well, you know,” she says, laughing, “nothing lasts for ever.” – Guardian
Dionne Warwick is due to appear at the Waterfront Hall, in Belfast, on September 19th and at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre, in Dublin, on September 20th